• McLaren team-mate is main danger, says world champion
• Qualifying remains a concern at tight Valencia circuit
Jenson Button said today that his team-mate, Lewis Hamilton, has emerged ahead of Red Bull and Ferrari as the biggest challenger to his world champion crown. The pair have enjoyed a close working relationship this season but Hamilton is now the championship leader after winning the last two races and is going for what would be his first hat-trick here on Sunday.
Button, the early-season leader after victories in Australia and China, said: “I think Lewis has to be pretty much my biggest rival. The great thing is I know exactly what he is doing with his car as a team?mate. We work well together and that is the most important thing for us. There are going to be times when we are wheel-to-wheel and we just have to make sure we respect each other in racing terms and don’t do anything silly.”
As rivalries have intensified in the other camps the obvious cordiality that exists between Button and Hamilton – at least until now – has been a feature of life at the high end of the paddock this season, although it would have been interesting to see what would have happened if Button had beaten Hamilton in Turkey after confusion over team orders.
Button added: “I come with experience of working with different teams. I have a lot of experience in trying different things in cars. Obviously I have a different style to Lewis in the way that we drive. Coming here [to McLaren] I have pushed Lewis very hard and he has pushed me very hard. We have moved forward, both of us, in terms of our speed and our ability this season – more than in previous seasons.
” It was the right move for me and I think for the team to employ me. As a package I think we’ve done a great job this year.”
Hamilton feels that Button has brought something different to the Woking team. “I think we already had quite a solid base before, with Heikki [Kovalainen]. I think he was contributing quite a lot to the team. He was very enthusiastic and worked very hard.
” But with Jenson coming in he’s doing the same thing as Heikki did but he’s getting more results in.
“That encourages the team even more, because at the end of the day the guys in the factory are pushing so hard to have 1-2s all the time. For the team that’s a huge boost.
“Heikki didn’t really push me in the races, but in practice and qualifying he was always very competitive. Race pace wasn’t his strongest point. The stronger your team-mate the more support you feel, the more competitive it is.
“It’s like any competition – if he does a bit better there you feel you have to get there, and he feels the same.”
Martin Whitmarsh, the McLaren team principal, said last night: “Lewis can learn a lot from Jenson, probably more than he expected to. Jenson is five years older, five years more experienced and has made some brilliant calls. Lewis has perked up to realise that Jenson is a fantastic, hard-driving racer.”
But Hamilton and Button will be tested here this weekend. This street circuit may suit their cars more than it does the Red Bull pair but, with overtaking so difficult, qualifying is vitally important and McLaren – and Button in particular – have struggled on most Saturdays. They have also come here without the upgrades Red Bull have bolted on their cars for this race.